Chances are if you’re an avid book collector, you’ve looked at your shelves and thought, “I wonder how valuable some of my books are!” Or maybe you’re a used bookstore patron and you’ve stumbled upon really pristine, really old copies of popular books that were super cheap, and thought maybe they might be worth more than their sticker price. If you don’t know how to tell if a book is a first edition, we can help! Keep in mind that just because you have a first edition copy of a certain title doesn’t make it inherently valuable—but if you hold onto it, it might become valuable one day!
The first thing you want to do is check the copyright date! If the copyright date is the same as the year the book was published, then that is a good first sign!
This will fluctuate depending on the publishing house, but most publishers will designate that a book is a first edition on the copyright page. However, just because you see those words doesn’t mean you’ve got a valuable book on your hands! That’s because “first edition” means different things to collectors and to publishers. To collectors, it refers to the very first version of the physical book to be printed. For publishers, “first edition” may just mean the first version of the text, without significant revisions. Many publishers will print the hardcover edition of a book and call that a first edition, then print the same text in paperback and call it a first edition as well. Unless the author or publishers makes changes to the text, adds something (like an appendix or author’s note), or revises the text, there is only one edition from format to format.
Print runs are a way for collectors to identify which “first edition” is truly the earliest version of the book to exist in the world. Print runs are the set number of copies of the book printed at one time. You can have a large print run or a small print run—it’s completely up to the publisher, and generally speaking the size of a print run isn’t shared with the public—but the print run number is easily found on the copyright page. It is a sequence of numbers, usually 1–10, and printed in descending or alternating order. The lowest number found on the page is the print run number.
Speaking generally, first editions will hold the most value if they are first editions, first printings. Depending on who has published the book and what formats it has been published in, you’ll be looking for hardcover books mostly. But don’t assume all hardcovers are first printings! You’ll want to take a look at the copyright page, found at the front of most books, and look for edition number, date, and print run number. Every publisher organizes this information differently, and some make it a little confusing, so you have to prepare to do a little detective work. Let’s take a look at a variety of copyright pages!
Here’s the copyright page for my hardcover copy of Far From the Tree by Robin Benway:
You might notice that at the very bottom, it proclaims “First Edition.” Sweet! That means this is the first version of the text published. However, we’ll want to go check the copyright date—and this one says 2017, which is the year that the first hardcover edition was released. Also good. Now, to find the print run number, we are going to look below the typography credit. Do you see the long list of descending numbers? On the right hand, you have 10–1. That indicates the print run numbers. The lowest number you can see is the print run number, in this case 1. On the left-hand side, you see the number 17–21. That refers to the year the print run occurred. Again, the lowest number you see is the year it was printed—17.
So based off of this information, we can deduce that my copy of Far From the Tree is a first edition hardcover, first print fun in the publication year 2017. It’s the earliest copy on the market—and because it was a National Book Award winner, I’m holding on to it as it might one day be worth something!
But not all publishers format this information in the same way. Let’s take a look at my hardcover copy of Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr. It’s a hardcover, and in great condition, but it has the National Book Award finalist sticker on it, which makes me think it’s not a first print run—the National Book Award books get stickers after they’ve been out and the award is announced in November. I opened up my copy, and sure enough!
Notice how this copyright page has even less information—it doesn’t even have the title! But you can also see that it says when the first edition was produced: January 2007. However, if you look down to the sequence of numbers, the lowest number you see is a 3—so this is the third printing. That tracks—by the third printing, the book had likely been named a finalist and was being stickered as it hit shelves.
What about signed first editions? They can be valuable, but again, edition and print run matter! Here’s my (signed!) copy of Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith:
Notice how Candlewick Press has a lot more information on this copyright page than the previous two examples! It says First edition 2018; however, when you look below you can see that it is a second printing, printed in 2018. Not bad!
If a book is extremely popular, it will have a lot of printings and you might have to look more closely to find the print run number. See my hardcover copy of Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, which I purchased well after the release date:
On this page, you can see the 2015 copyright date, and below where it says “first edition” after the title. Look lower, and you’ll see that the print run numbers aren’t sequential, but they alternate on the left and right sides. This is a design choice, and varies by publisher. Since 13 is the lowest number, that means my copy is from the 13th print run. Below you’ll see a print run number from the international paperback edition—my copy is a hardcover, so my best guess is that this page is identical to the paperback international edition copyright page! This publisher chose not to include the year that it was printed.
How does this vary when you have a paperback edition, or an international edition? Let’s take a look at the American paperback edition of Wildlife by Fiona Wood!
At the very top, you’ll see that the copyright date is 2013. Even though the book didn’t come out in the U.S. in 2013, that was the year copyright was first filed. Look a little lower and you’ll see that the first U.S. Paperback Edition came in 2016, and the first U.S. Hardcover Edition was published in 2014. Even lower, and the book says “First U.S. Edition.” At the bottom of the page, you can see that it is a first printing. Why does this all mean? It is the first edition, first printing of the paperback in the U.S. Because so many versions of the book came before this copy, it likely won’t be worth a lot of money.
Occasionally, you’ll see print run numbers that range 0–9, like this paperback copy of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin:
Note that on this copyright page, the print run numbers appear as ” 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0″; technically 0 is lower than 1, but what it refers to here is print run number 10! If the book is reprinted that many times (which could take a while) the publisher will likely reformat these print run numbers to go higher—like how the print run numbers look on Six of Crows, above.
Sometimes, when you get a paperback copy, it’s not always obvious that this is a paperback following a hardcover release! See this copyright page for Trouble is a Friend of Mine by Stephanie Tromly.
At the top, it says it’s published by SPEAK (Penguin Group’s YA paperback imprint). Then, it says “First published in the United States of America by Kathy Dawson Books…2015,” followed by “Published by SPEAK, 2016.” The copyright is 2015. You can deduce then that the latest copyright date for the format is the correct one for the book in your hands. Look farther down, and you can see that it’s a first print run of the first paperback edition!
Because of the variations between how publishers convey this information, it can be confusing! The print run system was introduced around the time of WWII, so any books published prior to the 1940s won’t have these hints—you’ll have to do even more research to determine their edition based on publishers and their individual practices (many of which have now gone out of business or been absorbed by bigger houses), or consult a rare book dealer.
First off, the value of a book often boils down to simple capitalism—if people want it, and there aren’t many available, then it will increase in value. The older the book and the harder it is to find, the more valuable it may be. The more someone is willing to pay for a copy, the higher the price for other copies in the same print run.
If a book’s initial print run is very small, and the book turned out to be a huge success later on, first editions may be more valuable. However, if you own a copy of The Little House on the Prairie from the 1950s, but it’s a reprint edition, it doesn’t matter that it’s old and has the original cover art and is in pristine condition—it probably won’t be worth a lot because there are so many copies in the world, and that particular title has been a steady seller over many decades.
The value of a book may also be dependent on other factors, such as whether or not there were any printing errors in any of the print runs. As weird as it may sound, printing errors make for valuable books! And sometimes signed early editions are pretty valuable, even if they aren’t first editions from the first printing! If the book is very, very popular, second editions or reprint editions may be desirable to collectors who don’t have the cash to fork over for first editions but still want a piece of rare book history. It just all depends on the book!
If you are interested in buying or browsing rare books and first editions, head over to the Rare & Collectible Books section on the Abe Books site or check out Bauman Rare Books. Rebecca Romney is a rare book specialist with a lot of great info on her site. You can also learn more in Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors and Collected Books: The Guide to Identification and Values. And to read a fascinating article about collecting books, their values, and women’s place in the trade, read about The Rare Women in the Rare-Book Trade.